Welcome back to Shanghai! In the last Tour d’Origine diary, we visited the urban parts of Shanghai, China. For Part II, I’m taking you where no car can go: back in history. We’ll be visiting the ancient water town ZhuJiaJiao (朱家角), the art district in the Old French Quarter TianZiFang (田子坊), and Yu Garden (豫園). Let’s hop on the express bus and head on over to our first stop.
Ancient Water Town 朱家角
Venice isn’t the only town on water! ZhuJiaZiao is less than half an hour (but about an hour of a drive due to traffic) outside of Shanghai city. It is located in the Qingpu District and historically dates back to about 1,700 years ago although there have been archaeological findings that suggest civilization was in the area up to 5,000 years ago. There are numerous stone bridges and rivers flowing between the ancient buildings. The town is famous for its rice and clothing businesses. To this day, there are still many shops that can be found in the old town. People who visit travel by foot or boat. It is famous for its cuisine which includes green soy beans, lotus roots, and many different assortments of meat. There is also the famous stinky tofu, my personal favorite, whose aroma (or stench if you’re not a fan) wafts into the streets on a hot summer day. The further into the town you travel, the more authentic everything becomes. Believe it or not, people still live in ZhuJiaJiao going about their everyday lives. It’s incredible how beautiful and historic everything feels. iPhone and coffee in my hand aside, I felt like I was in ancient China.
ZhuJiaJiao has a few famous landmarks: FangSheng Bridge, Qing Dynasty post office, the Tongtianhe Pharmacy, and the Yuanjin Buddhist Temple. I’ll be giving you a walking tour of the town and introduce each one as we go!
First stop is a small restaurant that sells Shanghainese food (steamed soup dumplings, buns, noodles, sticky rice and meat wrapped in lotus or bamboo leaves (zong zi 粽子), and lotus roots. I managed to get a seat by the railing overlooking the river as I enjoyed spicy cold noodles and stinky tofu for lunch.
Isn’t that view STUNNING?! The bridge you see in the photo above is the famous FangSheng Bridge. The bridge is made entirely from stone. You can tell it’s been walked on by hundreds of thousands of people by the way the steps now slope downwards. After lunch, I took a walk across the bridge to see the view of both sides of ZhuJiaJiao and to see the other side of the town.
At the top arch of the bridge, you can see the town on both sides of the river. The view is so serene. Despite the fact there were hundreds of tourists around me, I could hear the steering oar turn in in the water on the boat under me. Looking across the roofs of all the buildings, you can see the age and strength of the culture still going strong 1,700 years later.
Across the bridge is a whole other side of town! In these streets, you can find a different area of town with different shops and restaurants. The streets are still made of stone and all the signs are still in red, but you start seeing more homes and ZhuJiaJiao residents. Many of them live above their shops and make a living off of the dried goods, roasted meats, or jewelry that they sell.
A few turns later, you’re back near the water by the canal. While the FangSheng Bridge and restaurants were by the river, the canal is where a lot of the trade occurred. The boats that they used (which are now strictly for tourists) come in and out of this canal every day to ship goods to and from the city. Around the canal are more stores as well as a few historic sites you can purchase tickets to enter.
What I love about these streets are if you look down, you can see the natural stone walkway that has been built and added onto for thousands of years. While this means you should look down as you walk, it adds to the authentic historic character of ZhuJiaJiao.
The first historic attraction I am taking you to to is the KeZhi Garden built in 1912. It spans a large portion of ZhuJiaJiao and took 15 years to complete. The garden entrance, pictured below, welcomes you into a small sitting area. Many doorways later, you can see the full garden and its pavilions and bridges in all its glory.
My favorite part about this garden is how it meshes Chinese culture with bits of Western architecture. While the garden isn’t as old as the town, I appreciate how well it fits in behind the doors of the streets by the canal.
In the middle of the garden are a scattered series of ponds, pavilions, and bridges. Each one has a unique trait about it, and while they all stand near each other they all blend well and yet stand strongly and uniquely as their own.
The last photo above is the famous Upside Down Lion Pavilion. To be honest, I’m unsure as to why it is called that. But I find its relatively minimalistic design yet intricate detail astonishingly beautiful up close.
After touring the garden, I hopped on the boat to the next destination: Yuan Jin Temple. This temple is painted a beautiful yellow, one of my favorite colors, and stands tall behind the dock.
Once the boat reached the dock, the temple wasn’t far off. I walked down the winding streets shadowed by the roof of buildings and numerous awnings. After a short walk, I arrived at the temple’s side door and entered the yellow courtyard.
In a Buddhist temple, there are many different “Buddhas” much like there are many different saints in Catholicism. Each mini temple is often dedicated to a specific Buddha. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about the religion anymore and cannot tell you which lived in Yuan Ji Temple. However, I can give you a walking tour of the beautiful temple.
From this temple, you can head out to the second temple in the town, City God Temple. The City God Temple is prime location for Taoists.Whenever you walk into a Chinese Buddhist temple, you may see many red ribbons tied up on trees in the courtyard. These are “wishing trees” where you make a wish and tie a red ribbon on the tree. The higher the branch, the more likely your wish is going to come true. Since red represents fortune and good luck, the ribbons radiate a bright crimson.
After touring the temples, I headed to the last part of town where the Qing Dynasty post office and TongTianHe Pharmacy stand. The post office is in its original shell although the inside is now made into a small exhibit about the postal service during the Qing Dynasty. The road leading up to it is a lot narrower than many of the other streets and filled with more modern shops and cafés much to my surprise
My favorite part about the post office is not the front or the back balcony but rather the view from the back balcony. It hangs over the river in a very peaceful and quiet part of ZhuJiaJiao. There’s even a fruit tree growing out next to the steps from the post office into the river. Standing on this balcony, I experienced one of the most soothing moments of my life. I don’t know if it’s the magic of watching residents happily live in ancient buildings or the stillness of the surrounding, but it was absolutely mesmerizing.
After leaving the post office, I was on a quest to find the last two attractions. The first one was TongTianHe Pharmacy. Along the way, I was able to trek through the more tourist-oriented part of ZhuJiaJiao on the outer skirts of the town. One of the perks is how the owners of these coffee shops and tea shops kept the old charm of their buildings by adding natural elements for decoration instead of full on renovations. The flowers and plants just added life to the old frames of the storefronts while the wooden features play up both the modern and ancient aspects of ZhuJiaJiao.
After a short walk, I came across the pharmacy. Even though it is small and has not been in operation, the smell of Chinese herbal medicine is still so strong that it lingers in every corner of the store.
In each of the drawers are different herbs grind into powder form by mortar and pestles. When you look up close on the countertops, you can still see tiny specks of dust and herb powders on the back tables. One of the strongest scents I recognized was ginseng. Ginseng has tons of health benefits which include boosting the immune system and helping you concentrate.
As I wrapped up the end of my own walking tour of ZhuJiaJiao, I walked past open gates of many residents’ homes. This was probably my favorite part of the trip. There’s something so humbling about seeing people so happy with the bare necessities. Growing up in the states, it’s easy to take a high standard of living for granted. Technology and consumerism easily governs our lives if we’re not careful. And here, I witness kids playing around with no toys or gadgets but sheerly with their imagination and friendships with other kids. While I was careful not to snap any photos of people out of respect for their privacy, I did get a peek at a friendly little boy who was happily skipping around the courtyard by his home smiling at the sun and bypasses. It made me miss the simpler days when children did play outside in the yard and not on their iPads.
Before I left, I passed by a famous tea house in the neighborhood which happened to be directly next to the restaurant I had lunch at. It was true to its historical appearance with beautiful Chinese wooden furniture and red tapestry. After touring the tea house, I popped a squat back in the restaurant and enjoyed a basket of steamed dumplings before heading out back to the city.
Overall, I have to say visiting ZhuJiaJiao was one of the most eye-opening experiences. Seeing the old mix with the new even outside of the city created a feeling that is difficult for me to describe. It made me appreciate the longevity of Chinese culture on a whole new level. I’ll definitely be back someday to visit more shops and ride along the canal again!
Yu Garden 豫園
YuYuan, or Yu Garden, is located in by the river on the east side of Shanghai. It consists of a shopping center (YuYuan Mart) and a historic garden which unfortunately I was unable to see due to the alarmingly large number of tourists there that day (I have inserted a few photos I found online below though!). The garden sits behind a City God Temple in Shanghai and was built in 1559. It has suffered through the First Opium War, Taiping Rebellion, and World War II but restored as a national monument in 1982.
Touring the YuYuan Mart was a very slow process. If there is anything you can count on happening in China it is sharing everything with tons of people and tourists. Shanghai has grown to become such an international city that it was fun people watching. There were tons of tourists from all continents and all walks of life enjoying the same views and delicious delicacies.
This bridge is probably one of the strongest pedestrian bridges I’ve walked on. It is constantly holding the weight of hundreds of people as they cross from the YuYuan Mart to the Yu Garden doors. The view from it was spectacular as well as the view of it. You can see the green and new fixtures in the pond against the old architecture.
After crossing the bridge, you can purchase tickets to see inside Yu Garden. The garden spans 5 acres and is split into six areas: Sansui Hall (the rockery), Wanhua Chamber (chamber of a thousand flowers), Dianchun Hall, Huijing Hall, Yuhua Hall, and Inner Garden with ponds and pavilions and towers. I’ve inserted a few pictures from Google below as promised. Trust me, I’m just as upset I didn’t get to go in as you are!
On your way out of Yu Yuan and Yu Yuan Mart, be sure to stop by the famous steamed dumpling joint that everyone and their mothers line up for. The line was outside the door over an hour before they opened for dinner, clogging the streets with people and tourists. After giving up on the wait, I made my way out of the mart and back into the streets of Shanghai. There were many more opportunities for dumplings ahead.
Art District 田子坊
Last but not least, the art district. TianZiFang is in the Old French Quarter of Shanghai city. Although it is in the city and surrounded by urban developments, it centers around a block of Shikumen housing dating back to the 1930s. Shikumen is a Shanghainese style of building that meshes Western and Oriental elements together, a bit like what we saw in XinTianDi in Part I. Although I loved ZhuJiaJiao, TianZiFang was by far my favorite place on my Shanghai trip. It was a perfect balance of old and new in the heart of Shanghai.
In this district, there are not only cute stores but tons of great and chill bars, hookah joints, and restaurants. A famous and popular spot for tourists, I was able to enjoy the company of so many different visitors as I sipped beer at a German brewery. TianZiFang is labeled as one of the art districts because it sparks so much creativity. You can see the inspiration behind every shop owner or restaurant owner’s business. There are art studios tucked away in buildings, coffee shops at all the corners, and craft stores in-between. Outside the district sits one of the largest shopping centers and streets of boutiques, but inside the old character and charm are preserved through the low hanging cables and stuttering AC units sitting outside windows.
TianZiFang is named after one of China’s earliest recorded artists who was alive during the Warring States Period. It was originally named Zhicheng Fang and a residential neighborhood before artists started pouring in due to the cheap rent. Soon, it was renamed TianZiFang, a pun off of Tian ZiFang, the artist.
Around the center of TianZiFang is this awesome strip of eccentric bars. This particular one, called Friends, was painted with bright colors and had a wall of beer bottle caps. I didn’t have time to stay for long, but the spirit of the bar and its visitors was quite contagiously upbeat!
The bar next to Friends was also very interesting! I forgot the actual name of it, but there were tons of international flags decorated outside of it. I liked how welcoming the bar was as well, with both the bar and the seats right along the street and no interior sitting area. It truly welcomed tourists to just sit down, have a drink, and continue their walk.
Going past the restaurants and bars, you can shop around all the craft stores. I loved seeing how each store sold something completely different from the next. All the products were very unique in design and utility. In between segments of stores were juice stands and murals. During this walk, I came across studios and themed cafés, two things that TianZiFang is famous for. Although I wasn’t able to make time for a trip to the café, I did manage to snag a picture of an art gallery.
But the best part of TianZiFang are the food vendors. Here you can find all the local favorites from giant beverages with a mango on top to French bubble waffle cone desserts to Hong Kong ice cream to Taiwanese snacks.
Shanghai was an incredible city to visit. Its international flare was inspiring and its growth impressive. The food was good, not one of my favorites, but tasty and zest with flavor nonetheless. I was surprised at how fashionable Shanghai citizens are. While my style is different, I appreciate how women and men doll up slightly even to run errands.
My previous visits to China, outside of Hong Kong, were not always the most pleasant. I’ve been to Beijing and towns around it as well as the Great Wall but often disliked how being in a Communist country felt. You could see the massive gap between the overdevelopment and overproduction the government drives and the underdevelopment in the people’s opportunities and education. While China overall has a long way to go, Shanghai is definitely showing a new side of China that I’d love to see prosper.
That’s all for now, mes chéries. In the next Tour d’Origine post, I’ll be taking you around Seoul. But until then, merci beaucoup et à bientôt!